Travel Tips for Americans Who Want to Visit Cuba

Now that I’m living in Havana studying dance, I’m getting A LOT of questions from Americans who want to travel here. I’ve put together some advice that I think will help you if you’re considering a visit to Cuba.San Ignacio

First steps:

1. Do your research before: 1) booking your trip and 2) asking friends who live in Havana for advice. There is a LOT to do here – think of it like New York or London. Buy a guidebook (I just discovered that Amazon Prime members can download Lonely Planet guidebooks for free) and read online articles and forums to get a sense of the possibilities.

Think about what you like to do – wander through museums, relax with drinks and listen to live music, go dancing and hit the best nightspots, explore beautiful natural settings, study music, dance or Spanish, go to the beach? You can do all of this from Havana, so if you only have a week, figure out your priorities for the time you have.

2. AMERICANS CANNOT ACCESS MONEY IN CUBA. That means no credit cards, no debit cards, no traveler’s cheques. You must bring the money you will need in cash. Most Americans either bring USD (but be prepared to get charged 10% when exchanging) or Euros (no 10% fee, but you lose money when you change from US to Euros in the US). For a short trip, I’d recommend USD. You’ll be exchanging for one of the Cuban currencies, called CUCs.

3. Prepare to be off the grid. You will likely not find up-to-date information on many websites anyway – it’s better to ask around or call to get current info – and wifi is only available in hotspots. Hotspots are located in parks and plazas throughout the city, and inside and outside many hotels. Parque Central is a good place to go online – either in the park or in one of the surrounding hotels. Once you get to Havana, you’ll need to buy a wifi card. Your best bet will be to go to the Etecsa office early on Obsispo for the best price (the hotels sell them for 3x as much) – 1.50cuc/hour – and wait on line.

4. There are two main requirements for traveling to Cuba that people often get confused about. Cuba requires that you purchase a 30-day tourist visa. Most airlines offer you the option to buy this at a kiosk at the airport where you’re flying out – you’ll need to check with your airline. From the US, it costs between $75-100. The other requirement is from the US side and has nothing to do with Cuban policy – it is to identify which category of licensed travel you fit under. In starting to normalize relations with Cuba, President Obama opened up these categories to individuals – so you can state which category you fit into, without going through a ton of paperwork to get a license. Most US tourists are now using the educational category (also known as “people-to-people”) – you select this when you buy your flight. **

** I will update this post or publish a new post once Trump announces the revised US-Cuba travel policies this Friday, as I expect regulations will be tightened for individual travel.

Parque Central from Hotel Rooftop

Some ideas for your time in Havana:

Once you’ve researched and prepared yourself a bit for a trip to Cuba, start asking more specific questions based on what you’d like to do. Here’s what I recommend in Havana when friends ask me for general advice (not dance-related – that’s another post):

  • Splurge on a classic car tour – 35-40 CUC per car – you get a tour of the city in a convertible, hitting some of the most famous spots. Yes, it’s touristy and a bit cheesy, but it’s a great way to get a visual tour of the city. So bust out that selfie stick and have fun.
  • Spend some time on the Malecón – take a walk in the early morning or around sunset when it’s cooler. If you’re feeling social, buy a bottle of rum and refresco (soda) and find a spot to hang out at night (try where Galiano or 23rd intersect at Malecón) and be ready to make friends.
  • Give yourself time to wander Habana Vieja to take pictures, stop for a mojito or limonada, and catch some live music in the afternoons or evenings. Obispo or Plaza Vieja are good spots to start from.
  • Pick one or two museums that sound the most interesting to you, and definitely go to Plaza de la Revolucion.
  • I’m the worst at buying souvenirs for friends and family on my trips; I’m lucky they keep me around. If you’re better at that type of thoughtful stuff, you’ll like San Jose artisan market as a one-stop shop. Don’t get excited about it as a cultural spot though – just buy your T-shirts, claves and bottles of rum and get on with your life.
  • The terraza on the rooftop of Hotel Inglaterra has horrible mojitos, but a great ambiance, lovely view and live music.
  • You can also easily do a day trip to nearby beaches or spend a day or two in Vinales or Trinidad. Both are interesting and beautiful, which is why they’re so popular with tourists.

Quick Tips:

  • Buy combination luggage locks for all bags – especially anything that will be checked. If it is not locked, expect to have a much lighter bag when you pick it up at baggage claim.
  • Keep your money on you in all transportation – airports, taxis, buses, etc. Lock it up in your suitcase in you’re room when you’re out.
  • Take a picture of your passport. You’ll need it for buying wifi cards and exchanging money.
  • Speaking of changing money, banks give slightly better rates, but are slower. Cadecas are generally quicker.
  • Download an offline map before you get here – I like “Map of Cuba offline”.
  • You can’t drink the tap water, but you can brush your teeth with it. For a short trip, you can buy bottled water. I have a Lifestraw water bottle with a filter that I use with tap water, and haven’t had any problems.
  • Stay in a casa particular – you can find them on sites like Airbnb – either renting a room in an apartment or house, or renting your own apartment.
  • You will usually have a phone in your casa that you can make local calls from, just ask the landlord.
  • Bring comfortable shoes. Havana is a very walkable city, so you’ll likely walk a lot. You can wear heels, but stick with wedges over stilettos. The streets and sidewalks are not even, and I don’t want you to break an ankle.
  • Bring a fan. It’s hot here. Really. Hot. Here. (Cubans and foreigners use umbrellas as shade from the sun – that’s an option too.)
  • When you get on line for anything – changing money, for example – ask, “who is the last?” by saying “Quien es el ultimo?”. Remember that person. People do not queue up in perfect formation here, so you need to remember where you are in line and let the next person know you’re last when they ask.
  • This should go without saying, but: learn the Spanish words for hello, how are you, please, thank you, bathroom, the check, water, and the United States (people will ask where you’re from) – and use them as appropriate with all of the Cubans you meet.

Of course, there is much more to share about enjoying Havana, but this should get you started! More information to come in future posts…stay tuned…and feel free to comment or ask questions below.

Weekend Inspiration: From Dystonia to Dance

This is an incredible snapshot of how dance can help us heal – not just emotionally, but physically.

Federico Bitti suffers from dystonia, a disease that causes involuntary muscle movement. His condition was not improving, despite traditional medical treatment, until Madonna entered the picture.

Yes, you read that right. Check it out:

You Have a Right to Dance

National Dance Week started last Friday, April 26, so it’s a great time to celebrate dance in your life!

No matter what your experience has been with dance, no matter what you’ve been told or what you’ve believed, how you’ve compared yourself to others or how you’ve worried about getting the steps – know this: Dancing is your birthright.

Every human being has an internal rhythm. Literally – it’s our heartbeat. And we all have the capacity for great joy and great love. Add those ingredients together and you’ve got dance.

You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to look perfect. You don’t have to know the steps or get the rhythm just right or master the technique.

All you have to do is hear music and let it move you. Breathe, smile, enjoy.

Don’t let anyone tell you different.

What is Follow My Lead? (video)

As you know, Follow My Lead is a dance blog, but it will also be a video series exploring unique styles of dance and the stories they tell.

I’ve been wanting to post video episodes for a while – interviews, tips, “dance diaries” – but it didn’t feel right until I created some kind of video that introduced who I am and what Follow My Lead is all about.

So, here it is!

A caveat: It’s not a highly-polished big production. I plan to produce professional episodes of Follow My Lead, but for now, I wanted to post something simple. And I didn’t want to wait until it was perfect. I have a lot of video ideas in mind, and I didn’t want producing the perfect intro video to become an obstacle to the dance stories waiting to be told.

So, tell me, which styles of dance would you like me to explore and share with you on Follow My Lead?

Why I Sweat My Prayers

Life’s been really busy lately, so I’ve temporarily fallen out of my dance routine.

I was away on vacation and traveling for work, then sick with a cold, and then I moved homes. It was really hard to fit in any dance classes.

But right before the move, I was able to squeeze in a two-hour dance session called “Sweat Your Prayers” that totally revitalized me.

This sign outlining the 5Rhythms hangs in the gym where we dance.

Sweat Your Prayers is not a class so much as a dance gathering. There’s a DJ/facilitator who sets the theme and tone for the morning and plays the music. The music generally follows a path called the “5Rhythms“: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness.

There’s no talking on the dance floor, although you do communicate with other participants through smiling, laughing, occasionally cheering, clapping or singing – and of course – through dancing.

Sweat Your Prayers gives me a Sunday morning to dance at my own pace with my own movements for a whole two hours. I have plenty of time to warm-up, rest and dance according to however I’m feeling that day.

I also have a lot of fun experimenting with different dance techniques. It’s a very open, welcoming space, so it’s easy to let go of feeling self-conscious. If I want to do some ballet steps, some salsa moves, or just leap around the room, I can.

And I love dancing with other people who are there to immerse themselves in dance too.

Admittedly, I was a little shy at first to dance with other people. I just kind of kept to myself and avoided eye contact. But lately, I’ve been opening up and have had some wonderful experiences. Sometimes it’s just sharing a smile and a laugh, sometimes it’s coordinating dance movements together. It’s really fun!

I actually got a little choked up at this last Sweat.

Our facilitator started playing the song “You Get What You Give” and a bunch of people let out a little cheer. To be honest, I’ve always gone back and forth on this song; sometimes liking it and sometimes thinking it’s really annoying.

But everyone was excited and smiling and dancing, and I started listening to the words as I danced.

But when the night is falling

And you cannot find the light

If you feel your dream is dying

Hold tight

You’ve got the music in you

Don’t let go

You’ve got the music in you

One dance left

This world is gonna pull through

Don’t give up

You’ve got a reason to live

Can’t forget

We only get what we give

My heart just opened up.

I hadn’t danced in weeks and here I was surrounded by all of these blissful people just dancing their hearts out. I felt so connected to music, to dance, to people and to life.

And that’s why I sweat my prayers.

***

(And if you feel like dancing to the song too, here’s the music video – complete with 90s fashion, angst, mall setting and a big dance party/food fight.)

How about you? Do you ever get emotional or teary when you dance? Tell me in about it in the comments!

Making Time to Dance

I’m a little nervous. I’ve just started a new job which will entail more hours and a lot of travel. My schedule is not going to be as flexible as it has been for the last several years.

So, of course, the big question is, when will I dance?

I don’t know exactly. But I know I have to make the time.

I’m happy and grateful that I have a well-paying job that challenges me intellectually, with people who I genuinely enjoy working with.

But it’s also easy to let a seductive career track distract you from your path. It takes discipline to listen to your head and still follow your heart.

I’ll need to be vigilant about taking advantage of free time to dance and to continue with this project. It’ll mean cutting out a lot of fluff. When I’m home I need to be spending time on the things that matter most to me. That will likely mean date nights with my husband and focusing on Follow My Lead, along with good doses of rest.

It will take discipline. A lot of nights (and weekends) I will probably just want to veg out. I’ll need to be honest with myself about identifying truly needed rest and lazy zombie couch time.

It will be worth it. This dream is pulling, pushing, poking and prodding at me. It won’t let me ignore it or forget it. I have to do it.

But it helps to write it, to promise it, to you.

Follow My Lead!

I don't look "perfect" in this picture, but I'm perfectly happy - in my element, dancing at Burning Man 2007.

I’m on a mission to learn all of the world’s dances.

Since I started taking ballet classes when I was four years old, I’ve loved to dance. I dreamed of being on Broadway, or better yet – on “Fame”. Or, even better yet – on “Solid Gold”.

A Solid Gold Dancer. YES. That was the ultimate dream job in my little Jersey girl mind in the 80’s.

I’m a grown-up now – in fact, I’m a grown-up with a grown-up job in marketing – but I still dream of being a dancer.

In fact, I still think of myself as a dancer. I’m most alive when I’m dancing. It’s like I have a swirling, sparkling disco ball spinning inside of me, shooting beams of light out in all directions. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.

You know how sometimes, someone just glows? Because they’re just completely in their element? They’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing? That’s me, when I’m dancing.

I’m not saying I’m the best dancer as far as technique goes. Technique is important, but it’s not the passion or the heart of dance.

I’m saying that I’m the first on the floor at your wedding and the last to leave. (And I mean the last – I actually cannot physically leave a wedding before the dancing’s done.) I will try any type of dance.  I’ve taken classes in ballet, contemporary, jazz, salsa, merengue, Argentine tango, ballroom, country line dancing, hip hop and more.

I’m fascinated by every new dance – the music, the rhythms, the steps and the story. Because all dances tell a story – of people, of place, of time. There’s a social context that creates these layers of meaning and feeling to every movement.

It’s not just steps! Dance is a collective story. And it’s the individual dancer’s story.

So. Here it is: Follow My Lead. This is my journey to learn the world’s dances.

I want you to join me. Maybe you’re just like me. If you could chuck it all, you’d spend your whole life traveling the world, learning every dance you could.

Maybe you’re not like me, but you love music, you love history, or you just love witnessing someone else following their passion.

I plan to chart my experiences in the world of dance with articles, photos, videos and playlists – taking you with me as I discover new movements and meaning. Most of all, I want to have fun and share it with you!

So, tell me, what do you love about dancing?